Sunday’s sermon: Phoebe and the Women of Rome: Women of Hidden Holiness

Text used – Romans 16:1-16

  • When I was in high school, I was pretty heavily involved in theater. But here’s the thing: I hated being on stage.
    • Basically got involved in theater because all of my friends were trying out and getting cast in various parts → only audition I ever did was a disaster to say the least
      • Serious scene that I was supposed to be doing with one of my best friends → he did great … I giggled my way through it (mostly due to nerves)
      • But like I said, all my friends were doing the plays, and I didn’t want to be left out.
    • Pit orchestra for a few musicals → played the violin part on my saxophone … which was wicked hard but also really fun because the violin always gets the best parts!
    • Eventually found my place: stage crew
      • Crewed for one or two plays
      • Quickly ended up as the stage manager → I was in charge! HAHAHA! I was behind the scenes, but I was still an integral part of the production. Plus, I got to chat with a friend of mine up in the light booth over the headsets, and the organizational nature of being a stage manager totally appealed to my type A personality. I loved everything about being on the stage crew and being the stage manager.
        • Got to be involved in the production but I also got to actually watch the play
        • Got to be involved in all the fun play-related things like set painting, pre-performance warm ups, and skipping class for dress rehersals
        • Got to work on a companionable level with the director (one of the high school teachers that I really enjoyed who happens to be a Moravian minister now)
        • Most important part (to me): got to be a part of the production without being on stage → No costumes. No heavy stage makeup. No lines to memorize. No blocking to hit. Absolutely zero acting required. The work that I did was behind-the-scenes work. It wasn’t seen by anyone outside the cast … but it was still crucial work in terms of the success of the production.
  • Throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of so many women of the Bible. Up to now, they’ve all been women with actual stories – with some sort of narrative, some sort of active and enacted presence within the Grand Story of Faith. A few of those women haven’t even had names (not names that history recorded, anyway), but their stories still took up space within the rest of Scripture. Some of them even took up significant space – whole chapters of text. But today’s women are different. We get no story about them. For a few of them, we don’t even get names, just their relationship to other named characters. But we are told that they are working for the gospel. Their work is behind-the-scenes work … but it is crucial work all the same.
    • Paul makes it abundantly clear that their work is crucial
  • So before we dig into the holy but hidden work of these last women in our summer series, let’s talk about Romans a bit as a book. → purpose of Romans = important to the role of these women
    • Romans = crucial book to the Christian faith – introduction to Romans from the Common English Bible study version: Paul’s letter to the early Christian believers in Rome is surely the most significant letter in the history of Christianity. It’s also quite possibly the most influential letter in all of human history. The impact of the book of Romans on Christian belief, behavior, spirituality, and worship has been profound. It’s also been important for relations among Christians, as well as relations between Christians and Jews. Romans has ignited movements with far-reaching implications for the Christian church, for culture, and even for politics.[1]
    • Romans = definitely written by Paul → Remember that there are a few of the books/letters in the New Testament that, while they’ve been attributed to Paul in the past, scholars are not pretty certain weren’t written by Paul.
      • E.g. – book of Hebrews
      • But Romans was definitely written by Paul.
    • Romans = only book/letter of Paul’s that we have in the New Testament that was written to a group of people Paul hadn’t visited → All of Paul’s other letters were written to congregations that he himself had established – to people that he had met and spent time with, people who had gotten to know Paul and his passion for the gospel up close and personal. But not Romans. – introduction to Romans from the Common English Bible study version: Paul was writing to a community he had neither founded nor visited, though he knew a number of people there. Paul wrote the letter, in part, to introduce himself and his gospel to the house churches in Rome before paying them a visit.[2]
      • Could give us some purpose behind this long list of names that we read this morning → Paul is writing to this group of Christians that he doesn’t know. Surely by this point, his reputation has preceded him among the Christians in these home churches, but as a way to solidify his reputation with them, he includes this long list of other Christians that he knows within their midst. He name-drops, if you will, in order to bolster his credibility among the Roman Christians when he finally does meet them in person.
        • Particularly because this list of names is found at the very end of Paul’s letter → spent the bulk of the letter evangelizing and expounding on theological and ecclesial matters – matters of faith and matters of what it means to be the church – and he includes the long list of names at the end as his way of underlining everything he’s previously said with the reputations of those he has name-dropped, letting their names and people’s relationships with them give weight to his message
  • So let’s take a closer look at this list of names.
    • Rom 16:1-16 includes 29 different individuals (not including the couple of times Paul says “and the brothers and sisters”)
      • 10 of those 29 are women! → This is something that we can easily lose track of because only a couple of those names are still names that are used today. We recognize Phoebe, Mary, and Julia as female names. The rest of them are a little harder to suss out. – other women: Prisca, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Nereus’ sister
        • Both interesting and important to note that Paul names these women in all manner of ways → Some are named only in reference to their relationship to someone else – Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister. Some are named in tandem with another (the implication, which is backed up by historical documentation, being that these women are part of a couple) – Prisca, Julia, and Junia. Some of the women are named on their own – Phoebe, Persis, and Mary. Paul even names two women who were slaves – Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Through his connections and his relationships, Paul makes it clear that the good news of the gospel can come from anyone anywhere. All facets of life. All classes. All ways of being a woman in Roman society. Anyone can preach the gospel. Anyone can hear the gospel. Anyone can live the gospel. Anyone can be changed by the gospel.
    • Other element crucial to understanding the role of women in the early church = the way Paul describes their roles/work → Paul uses an abundance of different terms and descriptors for the work that these women were doing for the Church.
      • Calls Phoebe a “servant” and a “sponsor”[3]
        • Gr. “servant” = work for deacon/deaconess → implies that Phoebe held an official role of some sort within the church (which is probably also why Paul mentions Phoebe first)
        • Gr. “sponsor” = protector, patron, benefactor, helper → Like Mary Magdalene and Lydia, whom we’ve talked about in previous weeks, this word indicates that Phoebe is a woman of means and social influence.[4] Once again, we find the work of successful and independent women laying the foundation of the early church.
      • Speaks of a few woman as those who have clearly worked and even suffered alongside Paul → Prisca and Junia
        • Prisca = “coworker”[5] → Gr. = sunergos, root of the word “synergy”
        • Junia = “relative” and “prisoner with me”[6] → is a bit unclear when it comes to “relatives” – could mean literal kinspeople or could simply mean fellow Jews
          • But Paul gives Junia an interesting distinction. He says that she, along with Andronicus, “were in Christ before me,”[7] indicating that Junia has been a follower of Jesus from the very beginning. Not only that, but Paul also calls these two “prominent among the apostles,” which could indicate that they were witnesses of the resurrection, a distinction which would make Junia one of the few female apostles.[8]
      • Also makes it clear that a number of these woman are doing difficult work for the gospel → describes Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis all with the same word
        • Mary and Persis = “worked hard”
        • Tryphaena and Tryphosa = “workers”
        • Gr. = particular work for work that carries connotations of striving, struggling, toiling, even becoming weary
        • So while the Church patriarchy over the past centuries has been peddling the story that the Church was built by men alone, it is abundantly clear by Paul’s own words and designations that there were a number of women – women from all backgrounds and all walks of life – who were doing the hard and dangerous work of spreading the gospel as well.
  • I feel like this passage is the perfect end to our summer of walking alongside the women of the Bible because it highlight so many women as those who were actively working for and living out the good news of the gospel in ways that significantly impacted the life of the early church. For centuries – millennia, even – their stories have been downplayed. Their stories have been ignored. Their stories have been warped and manipulated and misused. But when we look at the text itself – when we dive into some of the grittier, more obscure, more challenging corners of Scripture – we find the stories of these women as shining examples of God working in and through them. So with gratitude, with faith, with hope, and with a new understanding, we conclude with Paul’s own words from today’s passage” to the women of Scripture – the known and the unknown, the named and the unnamed, the weighed down and the lifted up: “All the churches of Christ salute you, remember you, cherish you, and honor you.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Michael J. Gorman. “Romans: Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible, ed. Joel B. Green. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 275 NT.

[2] Gorman, 275-276 NT.

[3] Rom 16:1, 2.

[4] N.T. Wright. “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 762.

[5] Rom 16:3.

[6] Rom 16:7.

[7] Rom 16:7.

[8] Wright, 762.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s